The Florida Primary: Was the January Move Worthwhile?

In 2007, Republican lawmakers with the assistance of some erstwhile Democrats moved the Florida Primary up on calendar. The goal of this move was to recapture a critical role in the Presidential nominating process for Florida, whose mid March primary in both 2000 and 2004 were irrelevant because presumptive nominees had already emerged. The move from mid March to early January at the time appeared to dovetail the continued front loading of the parties nominating processes.

Beginning in 1972, Florida played a critical role in Presidential Primary politics. It was that year’s Democratic Primary which the national media touted would demonstrate the strength for several Northern candidates running against Segregationist Alabama Governor George C. Wallace for the nomination. The press, so convinced that the few New York and Chicago transplants they knew had made Florida more of a non southern state, erred badly and Wallace won the ordinary by 23 points carrying all but two counties.

The reality was the massive northern migration to Florida had begun in earnest during the postwar period but many of the early transplants were Midwestern or New England Yankee Republicans. In 1972, the Florida Democratic Party was just transitioning from the likes of Farris Bryant and Hayden Burns to more enlightened voices such as Reuben Askew and others. Florida may not have been as southern as its neighbors, but its Democratic Party was still Dixie to its core. The win gave Wallace momentum that was only stifled by Arthur Bremer’s gun some months later.

The national media, having acknowledged this folly choose to not build up Florida’s significance during the lead-up to the the 1976 race.  But this changed when a relatively unknown former Governor of neighboring Georgia shocked the political establishment with huge upset victories in Iowa and New Hampshire. Carter’s victory over Wallace in Florida effectively ended his Presidential ambitions forever. Perhaps more importantly, Florida Republicans on the very same day reinforced their non southern reputation by giving President Gerald Ford a victory over Ronald Reagan, perhaps his most important primary win in a close race to the nomination.

Super Tuesday, the creation of several Southern Democratic governors in 1984, created a regional primary day where Florida was the second biggest prize behind Texas in both parties nominating process. Florida gave Gary Hart a critical win in 1984 but served ore or less as a front runner rubber stamp in 1988 and 1992 on both sides of the aisle. This status quo retained Florida’s relevance until other southern states and several industrial Midwestern states began moving their primaries forward following the 1996 election. But Florida’s Republican led Legislature was slow to react while other southern states moved more quickly and aggressively.

Finally after two election cycles of total irrelevance at the primary level (despite Florida’s decisive role in the November elections) the legislature acted and violated both party rules in the process. Instead of moving Florida up to join in a virtual national primary day on Feb 5, 2008, the Legislature went too far moving our primary into January. What resulted was a loss of delegates and virtually no role in either parties nominating process in 2008 and now a minor role in 2012. Instead of regaining relevance we ended up losing candidate appearances and being blackballed by both major national parties.

Political trends are historically cyclical. Florida played a critical role in the 1972 and 1976 nominating process with an early primary, but conversely California played a critical role in 1968, and 1984 with a late primary date, and in 2008 states such as Indiana were critical for their late primaries. In 1988, the states with April primaries tended to be the most important.

The bottom line is the Florida Legislature acted too late to move up Florida’s primary and when they did act they went too far, serving to give the parties an excuse to disenfranchise Florida voters. Sadly, this sort of ineffectual attitude followed by over reaction (leading from behind as some would mock it) has become standard operating procedure on any number of issues for our Legislature since the GOP takeover in 1996. For the 2016 cycle, our Legislature would be wise to safely move the primary to mid February date or to the first Tuesday in March.

Florida is a microcosm of the nation demographically, which we most certainly were not in 1972. Our primary will regain relevance if it is placed in any spot in the calendar which does not violate either party’s rules or come after a presumptive nominee is decided. This gives our Legislature the opportunity to feel out any date in February or early March to restore our critical role in the nominating process.